An ‘Equal’ Contest

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With 13 contestants in fray for south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency it is mainly PDP versus NC. Suhail A Shah tries to gauges the public mood  

Omar-Abdullah-and-Mufti-SyedAt a recent public rally in South Kashmir’s Kulgam town the senior National Conference (NC) leader and the incumbent Parliamentarian from the seat, while recounting his ‘good work’ during his tenure in the Lok Sabha, said that he facilitated the fencing of around 2000 graveyards in the region.

“Ask Mehbooba how many did she fence during her tenure.” roared Beg, amid applause from the small crowd.  Beg’s statement is a reflection of the work he has managed to pull off as an MP, or the lack of it. Beg has been nominated by the NC-Congress coalition to represent it at the seat.

Out of the 16 Assembly segments the constituency is comprised of PDP represents 12, Congress 2, NC one and CPI (M) one. With a total electorate of 1153288, the voter turnout in 2008 Assembly elections in the region stood at 52.96 per cent. 610850 voters exercised their right to vote.

The PDP’s vote share in the elections was 30.21 per cent (190660) while the National Conference got 20.91 (12778) per cent votes polled.

Just after a year the Lok Sabha polls were contested in the region and the constituency witnessed a 27.09 per cent voter turnout in the last Lok Sabha polls with 318726 out of 1176223 votes polled. Beg, emerging winner, got 46.53 per cent (148317) of the vote share, while as the PDP candidate Peer Muhammad Hussain, followed closely with 44.90 per cent (143093). Beg won with a margin of just over 5000 votes.

Despite PDP’s feat in the Assembly polls there was a turnaround in 2009, with the National Conference gaining a lead on as many segments as the PDP. Within a year PDP lost its tally by 4 and NC gained by 7. The observers attribute the NC’s comeback of sorts on the Lok Sabha constituency to a low voter turnout.

However the observers feel that the NC has been callous in cashing in on the momentum of the 2009 polls, “the region has been neglected by the incumbent government on developmental front,” says Mudassir Qadri, a South Kashmir based journalist.

The seat has been represented by the NC five times, Congress thrice and the PDP and the Janata Dal once each.

With 13 candidates in fray for the seat, the contest is expected to be a bilateral one, between the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) President, Mehbooba Mufti and Beg.

Anantnag-Constituency-ProfileA majority of the political analysts believe that the contest is going to be a one sided affair, with Mehbooba emerging as a clear winner; however it might not be such a cake walk after all.

While Beg will be countering the anti-incumbency factor the PDP also has that very factor stacked against it, of course in a very different way. “The region has been neglected on the developmental front and the PDP people have been acting as mute spectators,” said a civil society member from Islamabad, Peerzada Khursheed.

Interestingly, Beg in every public rally of his, regardless of the place and the people he addresses, has been asking people to use internet as a source for his performance.

The uncomfortable truth for Beg however is the fact that only a few people in Kashmir have the access to the internet. Beg, recently on the sidelines of a public rally in Islamabad, lost his cool when a journalist posed questions about his performance in the Lok Sabha.

He snapped at the journalist when asked about his question regarding Prasar Bharti’s programme allocation policy, he had recently asked during a Lok Sabha session.

Ever since being elected to Lok Sabha, apart from an occasional visit to the Islamabad District Hospital, named after his father, Beg has been absent from the scene, which he attributes to his ‘attendance’ in the parliament.

On the other hand the PDP, sitting in the opposition, has not been able to convert the voter turnout into its favour to development in the region. Besides, Mehbooba, during her stint in Lok Sabha has been equally bad, if not worse.

Apart from attacking each other throughout their election campaign, there has been a marked difference between the two. The NC-Congress coalition has been banking upon Modi and PDP bashing.

“The PDP bashing is obvious and understood; however Modi bashing is incomprehensible.” opines Qadri, adding that this shows a lack of proper agenda with the coalition partners.

 He says that the people in Kashmir are least bothered about who becomes the Prime Minister of India, leaving their campaign at the peripheries of futility.

The PDP on the other hand has been talking about the resolution of the Kashmir issue and the issues the Kashmiris have been facing. How seriously the people are taking it is another issue.

There are a multitude of factors that are going to be instrumental in the outcome of the general elections for the South Kashmir seat, which comprises of four districts, including Islamabad, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian. Each district has a distinct political landscape and the factors that will affect the outcome are versatile, if not entirely different.

One of the most important factors will be the low voter turnout in the major towns, like Islamabad, Bijbehara, Pulwama, Tral and Shopian. The resentment with the main-stream politics in these areas is wide spread and the low vote turn out is expected to stay the way it is.

Besides, there has been no poll campaign by any political party in the major towns and the villages located along the main roads. In towns where some parties managed to reach, they have been greeted with shut downs and protests. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s cavalcade was stoned in Shopian town and Tral town witnessed a complete shut down on Omar Abdullah’s visit, besides many other stray incidents in these towns. The incidents give a scale to gauge the public mood at these places.

In the peripheral towns and villages the developmental issues are of importance, which surprisingly have been missing from the poll campaigns of both the parties.

During the last almost 12 years, the Islamabad town has been mentioned in the State Legislative Assembly just once when the Congress MLC Muhammad Amin Bhat enquired about the reason behind horse carts being put out of service in this town. There is widespread resentment against both the candidates.

Rest of the district is going to be a mixed bag for both Beg and Mehbooba. While Mehbooba will be heavily banking upon her home constituency, Bijbehara and Pahalgam, Beg will be hoping that the alliance with the Congress gives him a thrust in the Dooru and Kokernag segments, both held by Congress.

However if the insiders are to be believed beg will be hoping against hopes. A young Congress activist from the area confides that the Congress workers are not that happy with the alliance and will prefer not to vote rather than voting for the National Conference (NC) leader. Besides, some of the Congress vote might actually land in Mehbooba’s kitty.

Pulwama is a PDP stronghold. It represents all 6 Assembly segments in the district and if analysts are to believed there will be no upset this time around as well.

However there has been widespread militant activity in the Pulwama district, particularly in Tral, which might bring down the voter turnout. Howsoever small the voter turnout might be it will nevertheless going to be in PDP’s favour.

Shopian district has over the last one month or so shown strong resentment with the mainstream politics with shutdowns and protests marking any mainstream activity in the area. The two Assembly segments in this district are represented by PDP leaders as well.

The politically most active of all the four districts, Kulgam district, will be an interesting battle to look out for. PDP holds two out of four Assembly segments in the district, one with the NC and another with CPI (M). The CPI (M) vote bank will be the one to look out for. The general belief is that they will vote against Sakina Itto and hence against NC; however the party insiders say that the supporters might actually be led to vote in favour of the NC. Or they might not vote at all, who knows?

The most important thing that is going to work in favour of the PDP is the sense of security and integrity that they were able to instil during their stint in running the state affairs, feels a senior journalist in Srinagar.

The most interesting of the factors will be the ‘other’ candidates in fray for the seat, with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate, Dr Tanveer Dar, emerging as a crowd puller. He, the observers believe, might manage to eat at a small chunk of the votes but the difference hence made will be a rather game changing one.

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